Carnage Noir

Carnage Noir happened over the weekend. It was, in short, good. I ran my Ghostbusters adventure — more on that in a later post — played Igor in a Discworld game with a lisp deemed incomprehensible, hooted and hollered during the Cube of Death geek trivia game show in the theater, caught up with many friends I hadn’t seen in a while and generally had a very, very good time.

2012 was a little bittersweet for me. Carnage is leaving the Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee to take up residence in Killington come November 2013. So all weekend, I had little “this is the last time” moments: the last breakfast at Gilman’s Diner, the last sprint through the hotel’s warren-like halls with its inexplicable nooks, zigs and zags, the last pick-up game in the lounge and many more. Conventions move from hotel to hotel all the time and I recognize there will be some new lounge in which to hang and play games, but Lake Morey will always be special to me.

The prospect of going to Carnage came completely out of the blue in 2005. Days beforehand, a friend asked, “Hey, do you want to go to this?” I had no idea what it was, but signed on. I’ve gone every year since, as a player, as a GM, as a staff member. Clearly I am stuck in deep with the Carnage culture and community.

And that’s where Carnage shines. It has an air of conviviality, the feeling of a far-flung clan of kindred souls — now flung as far as Arizona and British Columbia, thanks to Monk and Munk — gathering for three days out of which everyone’s going to wring what they love best. It’s not just about playing games. That’s the vehicle. What that vehicle transports is community, shared joy and a good time.

In my eight years at Carnage, I’ve watched lasting friendships form and children grow up. The kids playing in the pool a few years ago are now playing games and running them. The newest generation of Carnage GMs stepped up this year with Dungeons & Dragons and Clay-O-Rama. A couple of adults hovered nearby, but you know, they weren’t needed. Those young GMs knew exactly what they were doing. And that’s pretty awesome.

Here’s to Carnage on the Mountain at Killington next year. We’re going to help make it exceptional all over again.

Ye Liveliest Awfulness

Reading The Case of Charles Dexter Ward this weekend — probably a re-read, as it’s all very familiar to me — a question struck me: given that one of the founding principles of life in Lovecraft Country is that there were all sorts of unnatural doings afoot during America’s colonial period, particularly in the darkly wooded hills of New England — including the deeds of Keziah Mason, as related by The Dreams in the Witch House — why haven’t there been more role-playing opportunities set in that time period?

Certainely, there was Noth’g but ye liveliest Awfulness in that which H. rais’d upp from What he cou’d gather onlie a part of.
– H. P. Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Maybe I’m not aware of the texts that do so or maybe it’s because one of Call of Cthulhu‘s key themes is the modern person’s realization the universe is vast, ultimately unknowable and uncaring, but given everything going on at the time that crept down through the years to plague the residents of 20th century Arkham and its neighbors, it seems like colonial America is a natural time and place for mythos-based action. Even in Charles Dexter Ward, there’s an archetypal coterie of community members who take it upon themselves to protect their local world from the depredations of an evil alchemist. That screamed “party of wildly disparate yet bound by a common interest player characters” to me.

I see there’s at least one Chaosium monograph on the topic, Colonial Terrors. Have you ever run a Cthulhoid campaign or one-shot in colonial America? How did it go?

The Thief of Olympus

Apropos of nothing save that I’ve liked this passage since I first read it in Tradition Book: Order of Hermes, thinking it encapsulated the promise of a literal renaissance of a proud fraternity languishing in senescence and at the time not many Mage: the Ascensionfans gave the potential of that revitalization much credit, consider this:

Hermes Trismegistus, from Wikipedia.

Hermes Trismegistus, from Wikipedia.


The idols of today’s youth ride broomsticks or wield spells. They fight balrogs and cyborgs, learn witchcraft and microtechnology. The children themselves bear Tolkien and Linux for Dummies in the same bookbag; chat in cybertongues to distant friends; don virtual disguises to enter imaginary worlds where aliens and faeries are one and the same.

And when they mature, these brave children learn to think around corners. To fly on words and unlock puzzles, weave illusions and craft new colors. Mastering arcane codes and words of power, they’ll summon Umbrood that Great Solomon never knew existed.

And some of them even make that final leap: Awakening to our Reality.

How Hermetic.

How like that Trickster, to confound his enemies this way! For using Technocratic tools to undo Technocratic Order is a jest worthy of the Thief of Olympus. Mythic Hermes stole Apollo’s cattle; modern Hermes steals the “cattle” from the Technocratic god — using their own goads to do it!

Tradition Book: Order of Hermes, pg. 34, by Stephen Michael DiPesa and Phil Brucato

Some REALLY atypical RPG settings

A post over at Topless Robot listed some good “atypical” RPG settings. You know, like Paranoia, Toon, and . . . Traveller? Pendragon? Wait, those are supposed to be weird?

Weak sauce, gentlemen. Weak sauce.

Traveller is a bog-standard hard science fiction with the addition of FTL travel. Pendragon is about Arthurian Britain, one of the longest-lived settings of adventure in our whole freakin’ culture. You want some unusual RPG settings? How about . . .

1. Bunnies and Burrows

You’re rabbits. Not magic, super-powered rabbits, just rabbits going through their everyday lagomorph lives. One of the yummiest things in God’s creation, cursed to a life of frantic fucking HOPING that enough of your kids survive red-tailed hawks to continue your family line. My college gaming buddies and I had a running joke for RPG nights when time was running short: Bunnies and Burrows vs. Cthulhu in the Old West.
GM: Uh, OK, you see an elder god.
PCs (in chorus): We wiggle our widdle noses at it!
GM: OK, you’re dead. There’s no medicine to heal you. 2 pts. for your next character.

2. GURPS Fantasy 2: Mad Lands

What were they smoking? Steve Jackson Games marketed this as their next big fantasy line. You kinda have to applaud them for such a gutsy move, but this game is all edgy and weird and Burroughs-esque without being much fun. The Mad Lands are home to a band of primitives subject to the whims of mad, chaotic gods. “Lobsters hung from her ear lobes; her body was covered with armor made of live, writhing sea urchins.” That’s a DIRECT quote from a story in Roleplayer. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a line from The Naked Lunch.

3. Broncosaurus Rex

The U.S. Civil War continues hundreds of years in the future. With dinosaurs. The Confederacy freed their slaves ages ago, so there’s no worrying about petty morality when your character flies the Stars and Bars. From the back of a triceratops. On another planet.

4. Little Fears

Children face down monsters in the closet. SCARY ones. The kind who want to slice your parents up for Sunday dinner or lock kids down in Uncle Touchy’s Naked Puzzle Basement. The book is beautifully done and there’s actually a good, albeit inconsistent, game in here. Fair warning—only very mature roleplayers should play this game.

5. Over the Edge

An absurdist conspiracy game on a fictional Mediterranean island. There’s lots of corruption, violence, drug use, and gambling. The whole shebang’s run by Monique, an aging President-for-Life who used to bang Mussolini. The one time we played Over the Edge the players got obsessed with the pizza delivery drivers who could travel through time. Lots of fun, with light and adaptable rules.

6. GURPS Goblins

Greedy, despicable, disgusting characters in Georgian London. At least they have an excuse: they’re goblins. This is an RPG within a Hogarth cartoon where greed, lechery, and base ambition make for a darkly comic, one of a kind experience.

7. Singing Cowboys (All Flesh Must Be Eaten)

RIghteous, root-beer drinking, God-fearing singing cowboys fighting zombies. I seriously have to wonder if anyone’s ever played this. I love All Flesh Must Be Eaten, a survival horror RPG with an elegant, versatile rules set that’s right in my sweet spot. But the Fistful o’ Zombies supplement was designed to integrate zombies with Western films, and someone noticed that a lot of old Westerns were low-budget flicks about singing cowboys. Even in-game the zombies are deliberately tacked on—the premise here is that a B-movie director is shoehorning monsters into his failing films, and the PCs are the clueless characters in the serials. The other settings in the book Fistful o’ Zombies are actually quite good; Singing Cowboys just comes off as pointless and odd.

8. Psychosis: Ship of Fools

PCs have to unravel multiple layers of reality with a tarot deck. I think the authors were going for an Illuminatus meets Dark City feel that doesn’t pan out. I never played this one, but I have read the book. You’ve gotta be a crackerjack writer to pull off a premise that ambitious and, well . . . that didn’t happen. It’s just overly twisty and boring, like talking to a hippie while the two of you are on different highs.

9. Human-Occupied Landfill (H.o.L.)

The grand champion of bizzarro roleplaying games.  The PCs live as prisoners on a giant landfill planet at the ass end of the galaxy. There’s bug-eyed aliens and orcs and toxic mutants and a sodomite biker gang. The whole damn book was handwritten for press. The game feels like being trapped in the gross-out drawings of an angry, disturbed, skilled 13-year-old.

The Rendlesham Incident

An artist’s depiction of the Rendlesham Forest Incident.

Balor of the Burning Eye is a Mad God of the WitchCraft universe that’s lived in the back of my mind for the last few years. It manifests in Malkuth as an enormous red eye, usually wreathed in flame, sometimes dripping blood. The original concept for Balor was a Mad God whose frequent incursions into Creation drove a cadre of Gifted to found the Brotherhood of Argus, dedicated to combating the Mad God and its minion’s efforts wherever they may be.

In this depiction of the Rendlesham Forest Incident, think of Balor as a manifesting ultraterrestrial. Balor has sent portions of its being to probe into the material world for many long aeons, for as long as there has been something on interest for it to probe. Long ago, Balor’s appearance was interpreted by locals as a relentless, burning eye. As time progressed, so did the interpretation of its appearance. These days, the ill-informed would call it a UFO, assuming it’s a vessel from another world piloted by beings of some form of flesh and blood.

But what they think is a ship is really still a four dimensional extrusion of an entity from a external space-time continuum that may not as few or as many dimensions as that. Balor’s appearance in Malkuth has no relation to however it may appear in its Creation of origin. It may not even realize how it seems to us, as the Mad God’s own perceptions are warped by the translation of four dimensional phenomena into its own sensory elements. The goals and motivations of such an ultraterrestrial may be even more opaque and unintelligible.

Consider the archetypal alien abduction encounter. An abduction victim recalls a sterile location, often white or some other neutral color. Small beings perform any manner of tests on their victim. In the ultraterrestrial hypothesis, these beings are from another dimension, rather than another world, maybe one coterminus with Earth as we know it — following the notion that it’s easier to step sideways into another world than cross interstellar gulfs. With the Mad Gods as ultraterrestrials of an extreme extra-cosmic order, maybe all those little beings are different expressions or manifestations of a larger being. Its natural state might be distributed across multiple organisms — as in Peter Watts’ short story companion to The Thing, the aptly-titled “The Things” — or it might be the translation to this Creation’s physics that cause a fracturing effect. In the latter case, an interesting twist would be different portions of the Mad God’s being working at odds with each other. Maybe one even founds the group that works against the Mad God’s ineffable goals.

In the case of Balor and the Brotherhood of Argus, the brotherhood may trace its founding to an encounter with the “true” Argus Panoptes, the watchman with one hundred eyes, which traces its existence back to the moment when the Balor entity first intruded on Malkuth-space. A portion of its being sheared off as the probing limb entered four dimensions, taking the appearance of a hundred-eyed giant. Lost and confused with no frame of reference, Argus associated the entity behind the now-truncated probing limb with danger and pain. Then it somehow pulled itself together sufficiently to use the overweening awe of local witnesses to sow the seeds that became the Brotherhood of Argus.

[Via Stochasticity.]

The Acme of Research Laboratories

CoastConFan Blog shows us the elements you might expect to find in your modern 1920s investigator’s lab and attached facilities. The first four pictures are of Harry Price‘s own lab. Price was an actual psychic investigator active during the 20s, so everything you see in those photos is in-period and accessible to someone in that line of endeavor.

CoastConFan goes on to suggest some other resources your hardy group of investigators would find handy: a reference library, examining/consultation room for doctors and analysts, storage and a garage.

That may seem like a lot for amateur investigators to pull together and it is. CoastConFan presents those resources as “for a full blow[n] investigators lab that is fully funded and should be consider the absolute acme of a mid-20s lab and headquarters.” So this is a great resource for someone working for the Gilchrist Trust, a magical researcher of Cabal at Martense College, one of the Rosicrucians’ scientifically-minded Parmenideans in that era of WitchCraft, and so on. That vague itch to dig out Angel‘s organization rules has resurfaced. I could see where the acme of research labs falls in spending points.

[Link via Propnomicon.]

A Dark Gathering 2012

This past Memorial Day weekend, I went to A Dark Gathering and played a crap-ton of Call of Cthulhu, certainly more than I’ve ever played before in a 48 hour period. A Dark Gathering modeled itself on a troll hoot, a micro-convention of friends who descend upon a conveniently placed hotel to spend the weekend role-playing. In this case, we met about halfway between the furthest flung contingents, putting us just outside Syracuse, New York[1] for a weekend of horror gaming.

All the gaming went down in a pair of suites — really larger sleeping rooms with floorspace for a banquet table and ample chairs each. There was a rough schedule of who would run what when. Nothing before the afternoon, so there was plenty of time for late night socializing and long-running scenarios. This was a welcome change for me, because I usually find myself rushing around in the early morning, particularly when working Carnage. My body wakes up on its own schedule regardless of when I go to sleep the night before, but having the morning to myself each day was most welcome — and even then, I still took Saturday night off. Turns out surviving a weekend of ample socialization without becoming visibly cranky means I need to block out plenty of me time.

I myself played in three Call of Cthulhu scenarios, each with a different GM and style. Friday evening, Andre Kruppa ran “The Burning Stars,” a scenario from Chaosium’s Terrors from Beyond anthology in his super theatrical style with lighting, music cues and props that help set the mood for some grim role-playing. That was the first time I needed a flashlight to check my character sheet or read the dice. Saturday afternoon’s “Any Port in a Storm,” run by Robin Lea, was a palate-cleanser in that it was more of a whimsical set-up with investigators for a paranormal reality show getting caught up in extra-dimensional hijinks — mind you, more than half the group still died, two from in-fighting and one from failure to unplug first, but it was all in good fun. I was completely unsubtle about my character’s secret in this one and enjoyed it immensely. Sunday afternoon I played in Tom Loney‘s “Fever Dream,” where the traditional set-up of being called to your dying uncle’s house ends much as one might expect in the Call of Cthulhu milieu.

While I took notes on all three games I played because it’s become habit by now, I’m on the fence about recapping them in as much detail as I have been the Pathfinder campaigns. That’s a lot of recapping and I find myself being more sensitive to spoiling scenarios that aren’t readily accessible as purchasable products for some reason — and there’s a huge cult of secrecy around Andre’s games, even when they’re published scenarios.

The hoot model has a lot going for it: small, intimate, loosely organized, relatively easy to arrange and potentially more affordable than a typical convention weekend. The flip side of a closed gathering is there’s less opportunity for the serendipity of discovering new games by wandering by a table. The interaction of extended networks can replicate that, though.

A Dark Gathering was a fun, tiring weekend. I got to hang out with friends I don’t normally see, make some more and do way more role-playing than I normally get to.


[0] N.b. Tom’s written his own account of the weekend in five parts. Robin’s record has pictures.

[1] And home of the Dinosaur BBQ, a restaurant I adored in my college days. That was a strong motivator, I can’t deny.

The Immortal Codex for WitchCraft

Immortal Codex cover

The cover of the Immortal Codex.

Discussion last week on RPGnet about WitchCraft and other urban fantasy games has got my thoughts turning around that game again. First the Gilchrist Trust crossed into the WitchCraft world. Then a passing reference to a self-published game called Immortal Invisible War led me to the Immortal Codex, a fan supplement for WitchCraft.

Claudia Silva took the format of a typical WitchCraft supplement and ported over wholesale the background and set-up of the Himsati immortals for use in Unisystem. I’m not familiar with the Invisible War, but it looks like a pretty gnarly, gonzo sort of urban fantasy with the resurgence of gods and dragons erupting into modern day as the shards of the mad god called the Sanguinary still lurk within mankind.

The Gilchrist Trust in WitchCraft

Dennis Detwiller’s The Gilchrist Trust would make an interesting antagonist association for WitchCraft, to go beyond its immediate Call of Cthulhu applications. The goal of the Trust, proving the existence of life after death, would bring them directly into contact with the Twilight Order and the House of Thanatos.

Given their self-assigned mission of maintaining the boundaries between life and death, the Order is almost automatically predisposed to act as a foil to Trust investigators’ efforts. “Mundanes,” as most Trust agents would be, aren’t supposed to know about ghosts and the otherworlds. I can see Twilight members actively following Trust agents to muddy their investigations, stealing artifacts under study by the Trust and racing them to newly uncovered locations and materials to remove any traces of necromantic practices.

The Thanatoi’s position on the Gilchrist Trust would be murkier. The House of Thanatos is more about boundary crossers. Their membership is made up of revenants, phantasms, vampires and other sorts who either blur the line, or caper merrily on both sides. So they’ve got the information that can win someone the big prize of the Gilchrist Trust. Whether any Thanatoi would be on board with that information exploding out to the public seems fairly unlikely. The afterlife is their specialty. The thought of it being legitimized and rigorously examined by even a fraction of the scientific establishment of the 1920s should be terrifying.

Of course, this is the 1920s. The occult world of WitchCraft is still reeling from the mini-reckoning of the Great War and the Spanish flu. The Twilight Order and the House of Thanatos are not likely to be entirely on their game at the moment — though maybe the Thanatoi’s rolls have had an influx of revenants and relentless dead from the fields of France; perhaps even Gilchrist’s son, Alexander. Moreover, the prospect of a cool million, or a sizable share of the Gilchrist fortune by taking the big prize, would be awfully tempting to the Gifted necromancer down on his luck. With the self-appointed guardians and experts of the afterlife at an ebb, this could be just the right time for the Gilchrist Trust and its agents to crack the afterlife wide open.